Mother-daughter stories – in fiction and nonfiction – seem to have been particularly popular in recent years. Lucy Neave’s second novel Believe in me is one of these, but just this year I’ve read several others, including Larissa Behrendt’s novel After story and Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops.
Their trajectories can vary, but in novels the most common one concerns a fractured relationship. More often than not, they are written from the point of view of the daughter (though in After story, Behrendt alternates the perspective between the two). Believe in me is one of those written from the daughter’s perspective, but in an interesting voice which switches between extended third person telling of her mother’s life and her first person telling of her own. The narrative starts around a year before Bet is born, out of wedlock in 1970s Sydney, to her 19-year-old American mother, Sarah. Why in Sydney and how Sarah became pregnant occupies the first quarter of the book.
However, the novel itself commences in 2004 with Bet telling us:
I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not exactly sure what happened to her in the year before I was born. At times, the anecdotes she told about her life make sense. At others, I traverse a tightrope high above the ground and have to fill the empty air beneath so that I can move from one place and time to another.
She is doing this because, she says, “if I can inhabit her consciousness, even a little, it might help me see who I am”. Immediately, then, we are clued into a problem, presumably the book’s key problem, that of Bet wanting to understand herself. She’s stalled it seems, but she needs, she continues, “to walk towards the future without always looking back”. Consequently, she tells her mother’s story by drawing on her mother’s scrapbooks “which are filled with overlapping memories and souvenirs and notes” and her own memory.
Sarah’s story is a sad and frustrating one. Bet introduces her in that first chapter as a naive, trusting 18-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York. She’s being sent away by her mother, and the religious community to which they belong, on a three-month mission to Idaho with their preacher Isaiah. Well, the inevitable happens and Sarah finds herself unbelieved, pregnant and despatched to Sydney, far away from home, to have the baby. Sarah is expected to give her baby up for adoption – to a childless aunt and uncle who show her no warmth. However, with the help of midwife Dora, she manages to escape, and thence begins her new life as a single mother in a strange country. The Whitlam government is in, and things are changing, but life is still not easy for a single mother, particularly one as unprepared for life, and as unsupported, as Sarah was.
While the focus of the novel is Sarah, it is told through the eyes of Bet, and in Bet’s eyes her mother rarely measures up. She frequently describes her as weak, when Bet really wants her mother to be “unbroken, robust”. The child’s eyes, however, seem to be at odds with the reality. For example, one-third into the novel, Sarah realises that her own mother back home is never going to help her:
Sarah had thought that in the end her mom would understand what she needed … Now she understands her longings have always been irrelevant. She’s meant to accept all that she receives. Only sometimes, like now, she can’t. In any case, she’s someone else now, different to the core.
This idea of “acceptance” is an important mantra for Sarah. Religious in origin – accept what God gives you – it often frames her choices, but in fact, she doesn’t always “accept”. Indeed, she flees several men when she realises they are not right for her:
Some things, she realises – and why did it take her so long to work this out – should never be accepted. Some things turn out not to have come from heaven.
Nevertheless, a few pages later, Bet continues with the weakness theme, “a part of her was still weak, the way it had always been”. The story here is one of the child never fully knowing the parent. It’s ironic, in fact, that Bet sees Sarah as naive, which she was, because for much of the novel, so is Bet in terms of understanding the pressures Sarah was under. The result is an uncomfortable but very real tension between these two who both love each other but struggle to make that love work.
The idea of “acceptance” is one motif that runs through the novel, but another involves animals. Sarah becomes a wildlife carer – particularly for injured wildlife – and Bet, a vet, which reflects their mutual desire to nurture. More curious though is the fox motif which threads through the story. A baby fox, back in her American childhood, is the first wildlife Sarah rescues and cares for. She eventually releases him, but “foxes will always be with you” becomes a bit of a grounding talisman for her. The clue to it lies in her mother Greta’s advice when she sends Sarah off: “Don’t worry about us. Be as free as a bird, as a fox”. In the tradition of mothers and daughters, Greta wants more for Sarah than she had, just as Sarah in her turn wants more for Bet – and yet, in their turn, the daughters don’t understand and so don’t appreciate this in their mothers.
I did find one aspect of the novel somewhat challenging, and this relates to its “interesting voice”. I love “interesting voices”, but there were times when Bet’s telling of Sarah’s story felt awkward. How did Bet know this? Was it from the scrapbooks, from conversations, from Sarah’s own confidences, or Bet’s imagining? The uncertainty this occasionally engendered affected my ability to properly engage with Bet’s perspective. However, I did enjoy the novel, particularly the way Neave weaves through it many of the social issues affecting women in the decades she traverses. There’s a political element to this personal story.
So, how to end? Or, more to the point, what does it all mean? When I’m in doubt, there are three things I turn to – the opening paragraphs, the title, and, where it exists, the epigraph. I’ve already mentioned the opening which explains that Bet is writing Sarah’s story in order to understand herself better. This, I’d say, she achieves (but to say how would give too much away).
Believe in me does have an epigraph, and it’s appropriate for a book about fraught mother-daughter love. It’s from Eudora Welty’s The optimist’s daughter, “… any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love”. I’ve read some Welty, but not this one. However, this idea seems perfect for a daughter to take from her mother’s life.
And finally, there’s the title. It’s a little trickier. As I was reading the novel, I wondered who was saying “Believe in me”? Sarah? Bet? God (whom she’s supposed to accept)? The egregious Isaiah who tried to convince Sarah to lie for him? Probably all of these, conveying the challenge we all face regarding who to believe and trust. It’s only through hard experience that we come to really know whom we can believe. Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, with its perceptive exploration of complex relationships, is one of those reads that makes you think, and for that I enjoyed it.
Lisa also reviewed and enjoyed this book.
(Review copy courtesy UQP)
Believe in me
St Lucia: UQP, 2021